Seeing Through an Air Traffic Controller's Eyes

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by Don Brown

I feel I may have overwhelmed some folks with numbers yesterday, so today I thought I'd go easy on you and put up some visual aids. The first item (a video) will take some setting up. I'll try to be brief.

The video is a time sequence of the hub operation at the Memphis airport.  Memphis is, of course, the home of FedEx.  I believe the video shows only FedEx airplanes, but regardless, don't confuse it with what air traffic controllers see on their radar scopes.  (We'll get to those too.)  The video shows numerous airplanes approaching the Memphis airport during some severe weather. The airplanes are the "ants" you'll see "crawling" all over the screen.

For those that don't look at weather radar images on a routine basis, the colors represent the severity of the weather.  Red is the worst part of the storms--turbulence, wind and rain--the yellow represents areas of slightly less intensity and the green represents rain--but without the dangerous turbulence.  The non-technical explanation is that the red can rip an airplane apart, the yellow can make you feel like it will rip your plane apart and the green will just be uncomfortable and wet.

Watch closely and you'll see the "ants" dodge the red, avoid the yellow (when possible) and fly through the green and/or clear areas. You'll see the airplanes fly through the "holes" in the weather. The location of the airport will become obvious.

There is, of course, more than one reason I'm showing this first video.  When you read the next newspaper story about NextGen and people start telling you about airplanes flying "in straight lines" and putting "lanes" in the sky "closer together" ... I want you to think of this video. Imagine what happens to all those "direct" routes and "lanes" when a line of thunderstorms like this comes along.

This next video is one most of my generation will recognize.  It may seem like an odd choice, but I've never seen a more accurate portrayal of a Center. The event is fiction (no, I never saw an event involving a UFO), but the "feel" is as real as it can get.  It isn't 100 percent accurate (the Conflict Alert doesn't go off on primary targets and it doesn't make a noise in the Centers) but so much of it is accurate that it suits my purposes.  Notice the interaction between all the people. Notice there are five conversations happening at once.  I even want you to notice when the guy crossing the aisle hands the controller a strip--one of the infamous "little pieces of paper" controllers used to keep track of airplanes.  Notice that the whole control room knows something is happening at that particular radar scope.  All of that is very realistic.  If the guy sitting in front of the radar scope--doing all the talking on the radio -- isn't an air traffic controller, then he deserves an Oscar.

The radar scopes you saw in that video are the ones I worked with at the beginning of my career.  The scope in the picture below is the type I worked with at the end of my career.   (Just as an aside, the handsome devil sitting in front of it was my next-door neighbor a career ago.)  The last picture is a close up of the radar display with a thunderstorm displayed.  Instead of the red, yellow and green in the previous video, we have cyan, some weird blue/green and dark blue.  The cyan -- the lightest color -- is the dangerous part.  The dark blue is just light rain.  I know, I know.  You'll just have to accept it -- like we did.  There are reasons, but I would have to write a book to explain.

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Don Brown was an air traffic controller at Atlanta Center, the busiest air traffic control facility in the world, for 25 years. During that time he was also the Facility Safety Representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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